With the popularity of social media a new buzz word has taken over the equestrian world. It's a magical word that conjures up images of beautiful horses performing rears, circles, or galloping on the beach and over hillsides all while completely at liberty or tackless with their handlers. It's all so beautiful and truly romantic, I mean.. who wouldn't want to experience a moment so unforgettable with their beloved horse?
These moments have become idolized in the equestrian world. We've become convinced that these moments in time are due to this idea of "bonding" with the horse, as if it's some magical tie that connects horse and rider deeper than anything that we could ever explain. Social media broadcasts these images and video clips, or we watch clinicians work with horses in ways that seem practically supernatural and we are told it's all about developing a "bond", "respect" or "becoming the leader". We see it, and we want it, but we don't always know how to get it or really what "bond" even is in the first place.
When someone tells me they want to develop a bond with their horse they often are referring to images they see on internet or clips they watch of horse people doing amazing things at liberty with their horses. Sometimes though, they are referring to working more in harmony just on an every day bases. They want their horse to stop refusing jumps, or to "respect" their space and they think if they had a better "bond" with their horse these problems would disappear. The problem is that this word "bond" has become a grossly misunderstood and overused word that really just sounds nice but has no place in the horse world.. at least not in the way it's usually used.
So what is "bond"? Or better yet, what isn't "bond"?
The word "bond" is supposed to refer to a deep connection between horse a handler. An almost supernatural connection that stands the test of time and boldly defies all obstacles. Idealistically, a horse would choose to trust this handler it's bonded with when in the face of danger, going wherever the handler asked because the horse trusted the handler so deeply it would leap through fire or jump off a cliff for this person. This explanation of "bond" is spiritual and supernatural in nature, anthropomorphizing the horse with human like attributes.
What the word "bond" is really, is training. Using one of the four quadrants of operant conditioning, patience, time, repetition, and effective communication any human can obtain "bond" with their horse. I know, I'm sucking the magic right out of it, but that's exactly my goal. Labeling images and actions with arbitrary words that are meaningless and unhelpful doesn't do anyone any good. It's also extremely harmful to the horse.
You might ask how working towards developing "bond" and experiencing such magical moments with your horse could be harmful to the horse. The danger and risk comes from focusing on an end goal without understanding how to get there or what's involved. I can look at one picture of a horse rearing at liberty, knowing that handler used positive punishment and negative reinforcement to train their horse, and then look at another picture of a horse rearing at liberty and know that handler used positive reinforcement to train their horse. However, bystanders wanting to imitate may not understand or know the difference.
In both pictures the horse and handler are displaying this idealistic moment of bonding and deep connection (as we are told), but one horse was trained using fear tactics and force while the other was trained using free shaping and reward. One horse had an option, the other horse did not. (I'll explain more in a moment.)
This may sound rather harsh to some, or like I'm calling out people that don't exclusively use positive reinforcement. I'm not. This is not an article about the qualities of positive reinforcement, but rather the science behind "bond" training. Negative reinforcement can be effectively used in a healthy way. I personally use negative reinforcement in moderation at appropriate times, but I'm fully aware of the difference this has mentally on the horse and use it as carefully as I do with all forms of training.
If you've read any of my other articles you'll know how strongly I feel about understanding each of the four quadrants of operant conditioning when working with your horse, as well as understanding true scientifically based equine behavior. If you don't know them or don't understand them you are at risk of causing mental harm to your horse and are probably not effectively training.
Briefly I'll explain the three I mention in this article to help, but I strongly recommend you educate yourself as well.
Negative Reinforcement is the application of a negative stimulus until a desired result occurs, and then the removal of that negative stimulus. "pressure and release"
Positive Punishment is the application of something strongly negative following an undesired behavior. In simple terms, this is a "punishment" or a "correction".
Positive Reinforcement is the application of a positive stimulus or reward following the performance of a desired behavior.
When applied in horse training, and more specifically to this article "at liberty training" or during trick training, negative reinforcement involves using some sort of pressure or force to make the horse perform a desired behavior. Once the behavior is performed, or some small step towards the desired end behavior, the pressure is removed. This can look like using a rope to teach a horse to bow or lay down, or it can look like driving/chasing a horse around a round pen until it begins to lick and chew or lower it's head.. and eventually follows you around, or it could be as small as light taps with the whip until the horse takes a step or lifts a leg. The horse is being taught - in order to avoid pressure it needs to do a certain behavior when asked. Very simply put, the horse is performing the human's requested behavior in order to avoid pressure.
Now, lets add in positive punishment to the mix. Usually horse trainers wont exclusively use positive punishment, but it's often unknowingly applied during training. Especially when the primary training form is negative reinforcement. The reason for this is that negative reinforcement can easily escalate to positive punishment. For example, let's say you're working in the round pen with your horse and you're doing "join up" or "lunging for respect". You want the horse to follow you around the round pen, but what happens when the horse get's distracted and walks off? Often the handler will turn quickly and (in the words of one very popular horse trainer) "go crazy", making the horse wish they hadn't gotten distracted. This is positive punishment. You are reprimanding the horse for ever walking away from you or getting distracted.
Having explained those first two and how they are used, let's look at how you might use positive reinforcement to train "bond". With positive reinforcement, you'll ideally be using free shaping. Free shaping involves marking a specific movement or action of the horse (such as a clicker sound) and then following with a reward (such as scratches, verbal praise, or food reward), then gradually building up the small actions into a bigger action until the end goal is achieved.
To give an example, this might look like teaching a horse to circle around you at liberty by beginning with marking a walking forward action. Then, as you continued to build on that action you would progress to an arched forward movement for a few steps around you, then add a little space between you and the horse, and then add speed. Eventually you will have achieved a beautiful nicely spaced circle at any pace you want without ever having to use any form of pressure or corrections, the horse will have (in its desire to earn a reward) offered every step of the learning process of it's own accord.
Using the two examples mentioned earlier, you can probably safely assume the horse trained with a reward based system would be more willing to try for its handler, enough to leap through fire or gallop down the beach.. but at the end of the day this still isn't due to a supernatural amount of trust on the horse's part. Instead, it's due to the handler's very careful training and development of the horse's desire to please and to try for the handler. Every day, little by little, the handler has encouraged and nurtured the horse's curiosity and bravery, conditioning the horse's drive to work for the handler. Gradually this horse and handler team have gone from uncertain and nervous to brave with clear and subtle communication skills. They have truly developed a connection, but it's nothing the average person can't obtain or anything supernatural, it's a connection based on patience and communication with positive interaction.
Looking at the second example, yes, this horse can rear at liberty too, it can jump tackless, the horse may even perform beautiful tricks and circles at liberty on the beach with the waves breaking on the sand bar in the background. Again though, there is nothing supernatural or unobtainable about this picture. This horse was trained with great dedication and consistency as was the other horse, the difference is that this one has been taught it must do as it's asked to avoid pressure or consequences while the other has been taught to offer behaviors in order to please the handler. Even when "free", this horse trained through pressure and release is mentally tied to it's handler in such a way that it doesn't know it's free... where as the other horse doesn't care to be free, it would much rather stay with the handler because the handler makes it rewarding.
So now that we've looked at the different forms of training, I want to clarify that I do firmly believe there is such a thing as "connection" and "trust" between horse and human. Some horses and humans connect better than others, their personalities and temperaments mesh well while some other pairs seem to clash. With patient and rewarding training a handler can encourage great trust from a horse, developing an almost "safe place" for the horse when they are in the presence of that human. In a way this is a form of leadership, a benevolent leadership that focuses on the well being of the horse rather than being self serving or dominating. When a human can offer this kind of calm, consistent, patient, rewarding, and clear kind of leadership the horse will naturally relax and find the human reassuring; preferring to remain with the human even when at liberty.
However, it should be clear now that these images we see on social media or videos we watch are nothing more than testaments to truly dedicated horse training, if they are portraying reality. Often times what we see in a short video clip or in a pretty picture is just a split second of time. It doesn't show the journey, it doesn't show reality. Sometimes the horses and handlers really do have a solid connection and sometimes not. Sometimes the horses are not truly "at liberty", since mentally they feel trapped and pressured, and sometimes the horses very clearly understand they have the freedom to choose.
Though this article has been long and some of you may disagree with me, I hope some of you found it helpful and informative. My desire is for you to take from this article the knowledge that you too can have "bond" with your horse, but that the "bond" you see on social media or that clinicians sell to the masses is not reality and only a romantic idea. The reality is that connection and trust come from educating yourself and then applying this to your every day horse training. You don't have to do liberty work or ride tackless to have "bond", you just need to listen to your horse and understand how horse training really works.
However, if you are interested in learning more about liberty work using positive reinforcement I have the first couple at liberty sessions with my horse Tiger on my YouTube channel; click here. I also have two blog articles about Tiger and I's work together; click here and here. And, if you've never worked with positive reinforcement please click here and read about how to safely get started with clicker training. I hope to soon be adding more videos as well as an informative "how to" blog article on getting started with at liberty work. But until then, please don't hesitate to comment below or email me questions, I love hearing from my readers.